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Dancing on the Edge

Sunday, July 24, 2011

If you stumble and just barely avert falling over the precipice, ought you thereafter assume it's okay to dance upon the spot? Yet that exactly what leaders are doing right now with the world's economic system.

The precipice was just two and a half years ago. Lest anyone think I exaggerate, here's the cover of the Economist that week*:

2011 7 24 world on the edge 

*not to be confused with 'What the the #@%! is Next'

The fear at the edge was palpable. Did George Bush really fret aloud that “this sucker may go down!”? Panicked into doing, Congress passed legislation infusing massive cash transfers into critical financial institutions, “bailing them out.” Essentially, the government printed more money, to the tune of $17,000 per American, (cumulative amount of all bailouts) using new public debt, the “promise to pay,” as the asset backing it. And after some breathless at last! It seemed to work, after a fashion.

But two and a half years later, the edge is back! Another related crisis, with consequences just as dire if its bungled. Come August 2nd, the United States....the world's largest borrower....will default on its debts unless Congress authorizes a higher borrowing limit. They've done this scores of times in the past, but this time they're stuck. How to do it? Cut spending (a lot), increase taxes (a lot), or kick the can down the road to deal with later? Always, the 3rd option has won out, but maybe not this time.

At present, 41 cents of every dollar spent is borrowed money, and credit rating agencies say they'll downgrade the U.S. credit rating in the absence of more financial discipline. They can't be bombed into submission, so it's a mixture of options 1 and 2, and nobody can agree on just what that mixture should be. So Congress and the President have been squabbling and stonewalling down to the present....dancing upon the edge...terms like 'financial Armeggedon' are bandied about in the event they do not succeed. Even to come near the date without an agreement is said to freak out the markets, which have always assumed that somehow these characters will get their act together.

But Friday (July 22nd) there was 'meltdown' in the negotiations and PBS commentators Mark Shields and David Brooks, never at a loss for words about anything, were dumbfounded:

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, what you have just seen is the rupture of the summit.....  And the time is now short. I mean, the grand deal appears to be in shambles. And now the urgency is to raise the debt-ceiling and get it done.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, shambles, a complete meltdown, apparently. I have never seen a presidential press conference with a president so angry in public.....if those [terms of a proposed agreement] are real, then I think it was a pretty good deal. But the president's tone of being the only adult in Washington, everyone else is a child, that he's going to summon people to the White House as if they are kindergartners, well, even if you agree with them on the substance, it's kind of hard to go along with someone who is insulting you all the time.

.....And now we're down to the point of, you know, look, we're staring right down the barrel of Aug. 2.

…..JIM LEHRER: Is it conceivable that they will not make a deal, or they will make it in such a way that the government of the United States of America will actually go into default?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I had been going in thinking there was a 10 or 20 percent chance of that. Now I would move that up to 30 or so.......

MARK SHIELDS: I still -- I'm just -- my native optimism just insists that these -- in the final analysis, they're not partisans, they're grownups, they're Americans, and they know how far how grave the consequences are.

JIM LEHRER: But then why are they acting the way they're acting?

MARK SHIELDS: It's -- it -- Jim, it's a question that I don't have the answer for.

 (Greatly abbreviated. Click above for the full transcript)


Of course, the public seethes over this and threatens to vote everyone out come next election. But surely that's a tired response. For people haven't been betrayed by their leaders....who are only doing just what one would expect them to do given the dramatically opposed constituencies they represent. This is the classic “iron mixed with clay” of Daniel 2:42-43. They're honorable people, for the most part, doing their best. Looking out for themselves at the same time, no doubt, but who doesn't? Rather, people have been betrayed by an idea....namely, that human rule, in this case government “by the people,”, and can solve our ever-deepening woes.

Oh yeah, Tom Sheepandgoats, oh yeah!? Well, if you don't think 'government by the people' works, tell me of some government you like better. Exactly.......I can't. They all have strengths. They all have weaknesses. And in each case, the former is outweighed by the latter. It simply goes to show that human rule itself is the problem, and that “we need the Kingdom”.... that heavenly Kingdom which the Bible speaks of and which Jehovah's Witnesses publicize.

But human self-rule is an article of faith unrivaled among notions today. Nobody likes to throw dirt at it. So instead they throw dirt at the persons involved, thinking they are the problem, and not the system itself. Yet the Congressmen themselves feel betrayed. They give their all to a system, believing as strongly as any religionist that that system will deliver, only to retire disillusioned, though always replaced by someone new who hasn't yet learned the lesson. Said Senator John Danforth, back in 1981: "I have never seen more Senators express discontent with their jobs....I think the major cause is that, deep down in our hearts, we have been accomplices in doing something terrible and unforgivable to our wonderful country. Deep down in our heart, we know that we have given our children a legacy of bankruptcy. We have defrauded our country to get ourselves elected."


Partly accounting for government truculence on economic matters is that past solutions have not proven effective. Accordingly, Senator Ron Paul grilled Fed Chief Ben Bernanke on the $17K per American ($5.1 trillion total) given to bail out the banks. Since there's been no discernible economic benefit, he mused, the Fed could have simply given each and every American $17,000.

Consumer spending would have increased, surely. And consumers could catch up on their loans, or even pay them off, so the bank would hardly suffer. And some might pool their allotments together, forming new enterprises and creating new jobs. Instead, the banks were given the $5.1 trillion directly, for their liquidity, while still holding ordinary persons on the hook for the full amount of whatever they might owe.

But Paul rushed his questions and cut off Bernanke's answers. Why? Senate sub-committee rules: he's only allotted 5 minutes! Right! And if it was the end of the world he was speaking about, he'd only have two minutes! But if it was the brand of coffee to be served during breaks, for that maybe he'd have 60 minutes or more. Shades of Parkinson's Law, if ever there existed any.

I tell you, this is absolutely amazing. And it comes right down to the wire. Perhaps the 30% chance of disaster will not occur just now, and will be postponed a bit. But the answer, God's Kingdom, is being steadily proclaimed unitedly the world over. And yet, because it's proclaimed by humble, ordinary people, it's largely ignored. After all, how many Jehovah's Witnesses have gone to Harvard? How many of them are wealthy and influential?

“For the speech about the torture stake [cross] is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is God’s power. For it is written: “I will make the wisdom of the wise [men] perish, and the intelligence of the intellectual [men] I will shove aside.” Where is the wise man? Where the scribe? Where the debater of this system of things? Did not God make the wisdom of the world foolish? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not get to know God, God saw good through the foolishness of what is preached to save those believing.”    Rom 1:18-21

You know, the wisdom of the world does look foolish these days. More foolish all the time. And more disheartening for those who trust in it.


Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’

You Got a Timetable on That?

Years after he went apostate on us, Vic Vomodog would walk into the hospital transfusion room, roll up his sleeve and say “fill er up!” just to show Jehovah's Witnesses what he thought of them. He authored a book....I still it see sometimes on the internet: “Forty Years Down the Toilet – My Wasted Life with Jehovah's Witnesses.” Online he's been known to log into chat rooms as Tom Puppydogs, so you have to watch out! More recently, he's somehow got his paws on a treasure trove of mundane Watchtower correspondence and he publishes each item separately on his blog as though each were a more damning indictment than the one preceding. I mean, if Jehovah's Witnesses pay their utility bill, he publishes the receipt as proof that they trust in man for power, not God. What is it with this guy?

So I contacted was probably not a good idea....they always say we ought not do it....but we used to work unitedly together at the Whitepebble Institute, and I just felt I should talk sense into him. What about the nearness of the end? I asked him. “You got a timetable on that?” he shot back.

No. I don’t. Isn’t that really what’s at the crux of everything?

We don’t get a timetable. Jesus said “keep on the watch” and “at an hour that you do not think to be it the Son of Man is coming.” Each time we’ve tried to force specificity on a prophesy we’ve been burned. And, no, it isn’t frequent. It’s happened just once in anyone’s lifetime (unless you are really really old), and even my arch-nemesis says (almost) that that time doesn't count. What we have today is a mix of prophesy confirmed by ever-deteriorating world conditions that point to a certain time period. That’s all we get.

It’s enough for Jehovah's Witnesses. We’re convinced this system is a failure and slated for replacement by God’s Kingdom. Our hearts are in that new system. We proclaim it. We even refer to it as the “real life,” applying the words of Timothy. But if your heart is with this system, all the work and practices and beliefs of those whose heart is with the one to come seem extreme, unnecessary, or even deleterious. It all depends upon where your focus is. Live a good life now, even try to reform this world, or adhere to what JWs believe is the Bible’s hope…a coming new system.

Our people tend to regard apostates as “the bogeyman,” and I sometimes wish it wasn't that way. It lends them an undeserved air of mystery. They're not mysterious at all. Their actions are very understandable. Everything lies in that verse about the slave who, bummed that the master keeps delaying, begins beating his fellow slaves. That verse never used to make much sense to me, but as I've seen the drama enacted in recent times, it now hangs together quite well.

“But if ever that evil slave should say in his heart, ‘My master is delaying,’ and should start to beat his fellow slaves and should eat and drink with the confirmed drunkards....."    Matt 24:48-49

It's in the midst of parables and prophesies (Matt 24 & 25) concerned solely with Christ's parousia ('presence', though often mistranslated 'return') Once the slave gets fed up about the master's 'delay,' he jumps ship, and then he has a lot of time to account for....years, even decades, proclaiming a message he no longer believes....wasted years, as he now sees them. What better way to account for it than to say he was misled, lied to, brainwashed? In effect, he 'beats' his fellow slaves, the ones who continue to stay the course.

So to avoid even the chance of being caught up in this outcome, ending up as a guy like Barfendogs, why not hedge your bets a little? Why not hold back? That way, if you somehow go sour on the whole Christianity thing one day, it won't be so hard to reintegrate into the world, since you never really left it in the first place. In short, why not learn, as is all the rage today, to “have your religion but keep it in its place” (which, of course, means last place)?  Wouldn't that be the practical course?

Sigh....yes, I suppose so, except that makes you lukewarm, and Jesus doesn't really like for his followers to be lukewarm. To that Laodicean congregation: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were cold or else hot. So, because you are lukewarm and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth.”   (Rev 3:15)

The smug churchy folk hate verses like this. And since, as my aforementioned nemesis breezily acknowledges, they're mostly biblically illiterate, they likely don't know about them in the first place. Which seems just fine to them, otherwise they'd go someplace where you actually learn the Bible. What they love are verses like “believe on the Lord Jesus and be saved.” Now we're talking! The easier, the better. The rest of the Bible is just so much "fine print". 

You might even liken the apostates to bad Baruchs. You remember Baruch, serving by Jeremiah's side for decades, leading up to Jerusalem's overthrow by Nebuchadnezzar. He got tired of it at one point, though, and the 45th chapter of Jeremiah is written for him:

“This is what Jehovah the God of Israel has said concerning you, O Baruch, You have said: “Woe, now, to me, for Jehovah has added grief to my pain! I have grown weary because of my sighing, and no resting-place have I found.”’“This is what you should say to him, ‘This is what Jehovah has said: “Look! What I have built up I am tearing down, and what I have planted I am uprooting, even all the land itself. But as for you, you keep seeking great things for yourself. Do not keep on seeking.”’
“‘For here I am bringing in a calamity upon all flesh,’ is the utterance of Jehovah, ‘and I will give you your soul as a spoil in all the places to which you may go.’”  Jer 45:2-5
And Baruch proceeded to say: “You got a timetable on that?”

Oh, alright, alright.....he didn't say it! I just threw it in. Apparently he responded well to the council, for we see his name mentioned later as one of the good guys. Would that the same could be said for all his counterparts today.


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The New Songbook

That last note of Make the Truth Your Own is one high, towering triumphant blast of a climb as you approach it, and then reach way back in your lungs for every ounce of power to, not just belt it out, but sustain it. Each verse ends just that way, and then reverts into the chorus. On a recent rendition, Tom Whitepebble is ready. He bides his time. He waits for the song to come around. There! The moment has arrived. He nails that high note, with all his might!.....“believe what he tells you is truuuue.....!”

What the......?!  The note's been changed! It's no longer that high crescendo! Now it's just some low-key humdrum note! Worse yet....everyone knows it except him! He's hanging out there all by himself, and they all turn to stare! The new songbook strikes again! Whitepebble looks clear across the hall at me (who is merely minding my own business) and mouths “Why?!”

I know why, of course. It's on account of a woman named Pearl, who is the wife of Tom Pearlsandswine, and who attends the congregation across town, where I used to attend. She loves to sing....we have a lot of people who love to sing....but she really isn't And when that final note used to come....that final note of each of the three verses, she'd let out a long piercing ape-like shriek that was enough to make you think “how come we don't have a paid choir, like the big churches do?” Moreover,  the way the song was held that last note, so there's no way anyone could ignore her braying in their midst.

I tell you, no one could keep a straight face. Worse, you knew it was coming....the verse built towards it.... so well before that climactic moment, snickering began. So, in the new songbook, they've changed that last note to some bland thing that any clod can handle. What else could they do?

It's not easy to write a review of the new songbook....we've been using it for ….what?....a year or two, now?.....because...because we're accustomed to praising anything we get as being exactly the food we need served up at just the right time, and don't think I'm about to break that tradition! Everything needs updating from time to time, we all know that. We'd used that old songbook for 25 years or so, as we had used the one prior to that. We had ample notice a new one was coming.  It wasn't sprung on us as a surprise. There was even encouragement to practice the melodies so as not to mess them up at the upcoming know how you'll sing a new song real anemic because you're not sure if the next note will be up or down. But, noooo....Whitepebble had to keep listening to his Bob Dylan CDs instead of the new Watchtower tunes. So it's his own fault.

The new songbook, “Sing to Jehovah,” is a substantial revision of the old one. It has 135 songs, of which 35 are brand new. That means 125 songs which didn't make the cut, since the old book featured 225. And many of the survivors have been reworked in word or tune, some to the point of being unrecognizable. Familiar lyrics are assigned to new melodies. Familiar melodies are given new words. It takes a while to get your head around it. Some of those new songs are beautiful, even hauntingly so. Others, though.....well, they might be if we can ever master the tune, but with 3 songs per meeting, and 135 to choose from, not that many opportunities arise. As to the 125 songs that vanished.....look, there was nothing wrong with any of them....nobody's saying otherwise. All of them were indisputable blessings from heaven. It's just that....well....we had to prune a few.

Of course, the instant I laid hands on the new book, I checked to see if "Dah da da da dah" was still there, a/k/a “We Must Have the Faith,” once song #144. It's still there, sort of. It's one of those which has undergone the scalpel, and only a ghost of the original refrain survives. That's too bad.

Our son was speaking by his first birthday. “Ball” was his favorite word, as I recall, and anything circular was a “ball.” Pulling out the MasterCharge card would excite him to no end, just like it does now for Mrs. Sheepandgoats, though for a different reason. But my daughter was not yet talking by her second birthday, and we began to worry. One day, however, Mrs. Sheepandgoats called me, all thrilled, to say she was singing the song.... “dah da da da dah”...the melody is very distinctive. I didn't believe her at first, but later on.....yes, I too heard it. Sure enough, she sang before she spoke (and when she began speaking, she quickly made up for all lost time). For the next few years, whenever that song played, she'd turn to us, eyes aglow, and exclaim: “It's Dah da da da DAH!” So we're not terribly pleased that they've messed with the song, but....such is the nature of progress.

I've even heard it said that they've “dumbed down” the songbook. That's unkind, isn't it? No, they didn't dumb it down!!! They just made in some places, dropping some lyrics that were absolutely untranslatable, you know, figures of speech and so forth that play well in one language but not another. Nobody, but nobody, translates material into as many languages as the Watchtower. Nobody comes close. By the way, they tell me that most of our translators in tiny backwater countries are youngsters in their twenties, since their parents tend to know the native tongue, but not any other. Another reason, I suppose, not to tax them with overcomplex vocabulary. Too, lyrics with any hint of “religiousity” have been dropped in favor of “plain speaking.” That's good, I guess, but sometimes I miss the old words. I mean, when you're singing some familiar tune, and suddenly your well remembered lines have been replaced, you find yourself grumbling “what on earth was wrong with those words?!” And there's a strange insistence on a few tunes that every note correspond to a syllable, a practice I find disconcerting.

Ah well. Maybe it plays out according to tastes in other parts of the world. The time for considering only English speaking persons has past, as it should. What one person doesn't really care for is all the rage somewhere else. So one has to move on.

You know, it would have helped had Manuel Noriega been able to move on. But, as it was, the onetime Panamanian dictator was stuck as a lover of classical music. He hadn't moved on to appreciate the modern stuff. So when the U.S. military wanted to flush him out of his Panama hiding spot in 1990 (much as NATO would like to do today with Muammar Gaddafi) they blasted him night and day with rock music mounted atop combat vehicles until the poor fellow couldn't take it anymore and gave himself up. And, when mall owners want chase away unruly teenagers, they simply play Mozart over the loudspeakers. Old people love it, but the kids run for their lives. If only we were more flexible when it comes to music.

Flexibility is not the defining trait of the Sheepandgoats clan, however. Predictability is. Thus, social gatherings of the Sheepandgoats men (not necessarily the women) invariably end with a game of Scrabble. Every time. “They always do it?” asked an incredulous new daughter-in-law. Yes. Always. Plus, we have developed peculiar quirks that make us incompatible with even other Scrabble players. The house dictionary rules, for example, and so the character of the game varies depending upon whose house we are in. Playing at Pop's house is a real challenge. There, a set of 1964 World Book encyclopedias still grace the living room bookshelf, a relic from the days he vainly hoped to pound some sense into us. His dictionary is from that era, too. It wasn't easy to get him to accept even such common electronic terms as “fax,” (which go unchallenged in my house or anywhere else) and I was robustly shouted down when I tried to play “adware” over a triple word score, the 'w' resting upon a double letter square.


Read ‘Tom Irregardless and Me.’    30% free preview

Starting with Prince, a fierce and frolicking defense of Jehovah’s Witnesses. A riotous romp through their way of life. “We have become a theatrical spectacle in the world, and to angels and to men,” the Bible verse says. That being the case, let’s give them some theater! Let’s skewer the liars who slander the Christ! Let’s pull down the house on the axis lords! Let the seed-pickers unite!


Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’